Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kreegah! Kevin Bundolo! (or "John Carter: The Post-Mortem")

True confessions. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan of the Apes, just then re-released in paperback, was the gateway drug. But soon I was enthralled by all of Burroughs' universe, both the steady stream of reprints that started appearing everywhere (Ace and Ballantine must have kept the presses running 24/7 for a few years -- there seemed to be new Burroughs reprints every month), and DC Comics' masterful adaptations that started filling the spinner racks at local newstands, particularly Joe Kubert's raw, visceral version of the Ape Man. Weird words and place names soon began to pepper my vocabulary (Barsoom, kreegah, Pellucidar, tarmangani, Opar, etc.), as a steady stream of Burroughs pulp began to fill my pre-adolescent brain,competing for space with a swelling interest in girls. For a few years, my dreams were as much about Carson of Venus, the Mucker, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Korak and all the other manly men of adventure and derring-do as it was about Susan in History, Diane in English, or Pam in art. 

Of course, in the end, the girls won, but then they always do. And to tell the truth, a steady diet of Burroughs for a few years eventually wears thin, and that adolescent rush of fantasy quietly slipped into its cave.

But it emerged periodically, that heady mix of awe and discovery, of heroes and perfectly realized new worlds to discover, mostly unleashed by film: the first Star Wars, Bladerunner, the first Alien, the occasional Stephen King novel, Lord of the Rings, Justin Cronin's Passage. The whole sparkly vampire thing didn't do it, and I thought Avatar was lunkheaded and self-conscious, high-minded silliness and self-indulgent ego wrapped up in the Emperor's new 3D clothes.

Last year's JOHN CARTER from Disney brought me right back. It was a hoot. It might not have always been faithful to the text, but the magic was. It wasn't as awe-inspiring as A New Hope, perhaps, and I could have done without the cutie-pie dog beast (although from a marketing standpoint it makes sense -- after all, R2D2 was cute too), but there was enough rousing action, imaginative artistry and oh-my-god-is-that-cool! moments to keep both my the Girl Detective and I mesmerized -- with ot without 3D. 

The "critics" hated it. Well, not real critics, for the most part, who were mixed about it, but those bandwagon jumpers who think they're critics simply because they have a blog or Twitter account and an over-developed sense of snark. The same high-minded critics who drool regularly all over such sub-par but superbly hyped flicks as Sin City and The Avengers. No, John Carter wasn't perfect, but the vitriol unleashed against it -- even before it was released -- via Twitter and the blogosphere and in second rate "review" sites all over the web was spectacular. 

It was like a concerted effort to destroy the film. Bad press piled upon bad press. Almost every "review" I read rushed to mention how much it cost , how much it was losing and how poorly it did on its opening weekend. It was like a sports analyst describing a hockey game by reading only the final score.

I mean, really. "Taylor Kitsch is no Mark Hammil"? Is that the best you can do, kid?

In his new book, John Carter and The Gods of Hollywoods, film makmer Michael Sellers contends that yes, there was indeed a conspiracy to destroy this film, and most of the damage was done long before most of the Blogosphere Sheep got their bleats in. Not so subtly subtitled "The True Story of What Went Wrong With Disney's John Carter and Why Edgar Rice Burroughs Original Superhero Isn't Dead Yet," it's a sobering tale told by an insider of corporate stupidity, inept marketing, studio politics and petty rivals and jealousies, and an angry indictment of all that's wrong, not just about Disney, but Hollywood (and corporate America) itself. 

For those of you who defied the Snark Week Attacks and the Gods of Hollywood and saw the film anyway, and enjoyed it (or even if you didn't), this is still a fascinating and intriguing look at the inner workings (or non-workings) of Hollywood's Dream Factory. And for Burroughs' fans, it's worth it just to bear witness to the long, sad march to the screen of a much-beloved book written over a century ago. 

It will leave you wondering not why Hollywood makes so many God-awful movies but how they ever manage to make any good ones. 

A version of this post appeared originally on Books of Interest and Other Stuff...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I'm Just Drawn This Way

Today marks the release of the Who Framed Roger Rabbit 25th Anniversary Special Edition in a spiffy Blu-Ray Combo Pack, loaded with the usual orgy of back-up features most of us will never watch. But the re-release of the movie?

That really excites me, for some reason.

And it's not just because it's an excuse to see Jessica Rabbit strut her stuff again. Hell, like most people, I don't even have a Blu-Ray player.

Although the notion of seeing Jessica in even higher resolution is certainly tempting.

But hey, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has a lot more going for it than just ome babe in a red sequinned dress. It was thoroughly entertaining film in oh so many ways. I loved it when it came out, and I still love it. And so do a lot of other people.

Back before almost every film was a SFX-driven cartoon, from high-faluting stuff like The Life of Pi to kiddle pulp like The Avengers and Transformers XXIII, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was something truly unique. It blended animation and live action in a spectacular, almost unheard of fashion, with effects that were actually special. And the film charmed almost everyone:  kids, parents, grandparents, classic cartoon buffs, fanboys and even private eye fans.

If you don't like this film, you're just a poopy pants.

Released in 1988, it starred Bob Hoskins as Eddie, your typical rough-around-the-edges Hollywood dick, and featured the voice of Charles Fleischer as Roger Rabbit. Also along for the ride was Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner (as the afore-mentioned Jessica) and an animated cast of thousands, in a story about greed, corruption, lust, betrayal and dropping pianos on people's heads. It was like Chinatown on acid. It was a huge critical and commercial hit.

And rarely has a film so completely overshadowed its source material. While Gary Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit had its moments, it was clunky, inconsistent and hard to envision, the audacious concept of a world populated by both humans and toons (who speak in word balloons) too slippery to really get a grip on.

But the film smashes right through those limitations by showing, not telling. Though Wolf's vision was certainly original and audacious, it took the big buck clout of the producers (Speilberg! Disney!) and the then state-of-the-art magic of Hollywood to make it all come true.

Director Robert Zemeckis managed to streamline Wolf's vision, getting rid of those annoying word balloons (too gimmicky and distracting by half) replacing them, in an inspired bit of big name clout, with the ultimate collection of classic cartoon characters from a slew of studios (including Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer and Universal).

They're all here: Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy Dog, and all the rest. Imagine! Mickey and Bugs Bunny together in the same scene! Daffy Duck and Donald Duck quacking away indecipherably, playing a piano duet that rapidly escalates into an arms race. Droopy manning an elevator! A tired, over-the-hill Betty Boop serving up drinks. For anyone who grew up watching cartoons, it's pure heaven to see all these old favourites again. The impetus for the Cartoon Network started there.

And the original toons are just as good. Roger is one stuttering, sputtering, hyperactive, accident-prone bunny. His co-star in cartoons is pint-sized, diaper-wearing, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping Baby Herman. And of course the anatomically over-correct Jessica Rabbit certainly raised a few, uh, eyebrows. She should be ridiculous, but she's possibly the sexiest woman ever to (almost) spill out of a dress. You know that cliche about legs up to here? Hers go further. Possibly as far as Cucamonga.

And boy, do they all these characters look good. As Leonard Maltin, a film critic who knows his toons, pointed out at the time, this is an "incredible blend of live-action and animation" that allows us to "believe that Roger and his cartoon colleagues actually exist."

I believed. Still do. And for a couple of hours maybe you will, too. Watch it with your kids.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I Been Blurbed!

According to Simon Dardick, head honcho over at VĂ©hicule Press, the ad above'll be running as the back cover of the upcoming issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, the Montreal quarterly that covers arts, politics, ideas and "anything else eclectic and curious." He pulled the quote from my intro to the reprint of The Body on Mont-Royal by David Montrose. I'll have to get one of my kids to pick up a copy or two, since chances of Palmdale's only bookstore carrying it seem slight... (although, curiously, the premiere issue DID show up at the local B&N years ago...).